Blast From The Past: History Lesson From 1929

8-0, 50-20. The numbers cited tell a story; a story of dominance, of excellence, of dynasty. 19, 2.5, -18. These numbers, too, tell a tale. A tale so typically baseball that it has held nations enthralled for over a century.

The first set of numbers describes the dominance of the New York Yankees in 1927 and 1928. The Yankees played in the Fall Classic in both of those years. Against the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1927 and against the St. Louis Cardinals in 1928, the Yankees went 8-0 in the World Series, outscoring both clubs by an aggregate score of 50-20.

The “typically baseball” numbers tell another story. In 1927, the Yankees won the American League pennant by a whopping 19 games. In 1928, they had a tougher go of it, copping the flag by 2.5 games. In 1929, the Bronx Bombers were 18 games in arrears of the team that represented the American League in the World Series.

It was the same team each of those three years—the Philadelphia Athletics.

The 1927 Yankees were considered one of baseball’s greatest teams. They had “Murderer’s Row,” the centrepiece of that lineup being Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. That year, Babe Ruth—all on his own—slugged more home runs (60) than the entire roster of the team the Yankees faced that year in the Fall Classic, the Pittsburgh Pirates (54). Since 1921, the Yankees represented the American League in the World Series six times. The fall of the House of Charles Comiskey came in 1919 when the “Black Sox” threw the World Series. The scandal, coupled with Red Sox owner Harry Frazee selling off his Red Sox stars about the same time, left one large market team as the cornerstone franchise of the American League—the New York Yankees. They had the best players and the most money, so the Yankees appeared poised to remain at the summit indefinitely.

However “intents and purposes” do not apply in baseball.

Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics had once been great. During the stretch where Boston and Chicago had jockeyed for position as the flagship franchise of the American League, the Athletics had managed to spirit away five pennants in the ten seasons spanning 1905-14. However a new “major league,” the Federal League, had emerged before World War II, drawing star players away from the more established American and National Leagues. Coupled with the threat of the First World War, Connie Mack sold off his star players and plunged his franchise into seemingly perpetual American League futility.

Mack however had slowly, assiduously rebuilt his franchise and by the late 1920’s, had assembled a roster that could challenge the mighty Yanks.

Still, how could a team so dominant fall so quickly? Baseball, as a game, is cyclical, even for a team as mighty as the Yanks. The Bronx Bombers were a team in transition at the same time that the Athletics had put one of its greatest rosters together. The 1929 Yankees had many question marks and many holes in the roster. Hall of Famers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock were on the downside of their careers. Despite being just 29 years old, Hoyt’s best years were behind him. He did pitch nine more major league seasons but averaged a mere eight victories per campaign. Herb Pennock was 35 years old and was falling fast. The Yankees were obligated to use swingman Ed Wells as their fourth starter. Handling this makeshift pitching staff was a rookie receiver who the Yankees hoped could finally replace Wally Schang. Schang was sent to the St. Louis Browns at age 35 after the 1925 season; his departure left a hole that lasted several seasons until the Yankees inserted a rookie behind the plate for 1929—Bill Dickey.

Another area in a state of flux was the left side of the infield. The Yankees, in effect, switched third basemen with the Boston Braves. Joe Dugan, who had manned third for several years for the Bronx Bombers, was plying his trade at Braves Park in Boston. And coming to the Big Apple was 30-year-old Gene Robertson. Both third sackers were at the end of the line. A young Mark Koenig had manned shortstop for a couple of seasons, but the Yankees decided to split duties there in 1929 with another young shortstop named Leo Durocher.

The outfield, despite still having a productive, though aging, Babe Ruth and leadoff man extraordinaire Earl Combs, had a yawning gap in left field. Bob Meusel, who had been a key member of the great teams earlier in the decade, was at the end of the line. Meusel would hit a mere .261 with 10 home runs and 57 RBI. The entire outfield was over 30 years old and terrible defensively.

It was a tribute to the Yankees’ greatness that they still finished in second place. The 1929 Athletics were, in a word, awesome. Four players on that team went on to the Hall of Fame: Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane and Lefty Grove. The Athletics outfield as a group (Al Simmons, Mule Haas and Bing Miller) hit .336 and drove in 332 runs. Their one and two starters, Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw, won 44 games and lost just 14. It was not surprising that the “1929 pennant race” was simply an oxymoron.

Of course the Athletics dynasty lasted until October 10, 1931, when Max Bishop flied out to Pepper Martin in the seventh game of the World Series. The Yankees however would sweep their third consecutive World Series the following year, dispatching the Cubs with relative ease. Later that decade the Yankees would win four straight from 1936-39, and after that they’d play in 18 more before 1965, winning 12. The Philadelphia Athletics would never play in another.

As stated in the outset, the 1929 un-pennant race is a good lesson in baseball history. In 1929, smaller market teams had a difficult time piecing together a competitive team because every amateur player was a free agent, free to sign with whichever team they chose. The Yankees generally had the most money and inked the best talent. Joe DiMaggio replaced Earl Combs. Frank Crosetti and Phil Rizzuto succeeded Leo Durocher and Mark Koenig. Joe Gordon manned second superbly after Tony Lazzeri, and the list goes on. After 1964, baseball instituted the amateur draft where amateur players could sign only with one team—the team that drafted them. The Yankees were mediocre for over a decade because they were not free to sign the best talent. Interestingly, with this arrangement in place, the Athletics, now in Oakland by way of Kansas City, built another dynasty. The Athletics won five straight division crowns and three consecutive World Series.

The season following the Athletics final division crown was the first of the free agent era. Again the Yankees had free access to baseball’s finest talent and the money to spend. The Bronx Bombers won the first three American League flags in the free agent era, culminating in back-to-back wins in the Fall Classic in 1977 and 1978.

1929 was not a pennant race, but a history lesson.

Did you know?

  • Leo Durocher was the prototypical “good field-no hit” shortstop. Babe Ruth nicknamed him: “The All American Out.”
  • Pitching wins championships. The Yankees offense was equal to the Athletics. The Athletics hit .296/.362/.451 as a club and scored 901 runs. The Yankees hit .295./361/.450 and posted 899 runs (AL: .284/.347/.407). Philadelphia had a team ERA of 3.44, New York 4.19 (AL ERA 5.01).
  • The 1929 Yankees had twice as many Hall of Famers on their roster as the 1929 Athletics. The Yankees eight hall of Famers were: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Earl Combs, Leo Durocher, Bill Dickey, Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock.
  • The managers of both the 1929 Athletics (Connie Mack) and the 1929 Yankees (Miller Huggins) are also in the Hall of Fame.
  • Three times in Yankee history they’ve finished a distant (10+ games back) second in the league or their division. All three times the club they were behind was the Philadelphia Athletics.
  • The Yankees finished 14.5 games back of the Athletics in 1910, 18 games back in 1929 and 13.5 games back in 1931.
  • By the time the Yankees had overthrown the Athletics mini-dynasty in 1932, they had four additional Hall of Famers dotting their roster: Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, Joe Sewell and manager Joe McCarthy.
  • The pitching star of the 1929 Yankees was a reliever. Tom Zachary finished a perfect 12-0, 2.48 ERA (155 ERA+).
  • Lou Gehrig finished first on the 1929 Yankees in both walks (122) and strike outs (68).
  • Miller Huggins would literally not survive the 1929 season.
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